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Bridging The Gap
Net Neutrality’s Holes in Europe May Offer Peek at Future in U.S.
  Monday 11 December, 2017
Net Neutrality’s Holes in Europe May Offer Peek at Future in U.S.

Last spring, Swedes got a tantalizing offer: If they subscribed to Sweden’s biggest telecom provider, Telia Company AB, they could have unlimited access on their mobile phones to Facebook, Spotify, Instagram and other blockbuster apps.

Swedish regulators tried to put a stop to it. They argued that the arrangement violated the so-called net neutrality rules in the European Union, which require internet providers to offer equal access to all web content. Essentially, once a user’s data cap was reached, Telia would restrict other apps, but not the big ones.

The issue is now working its way through the courts. As it does, the offer is still available.

Such deals may be gaining momentum in the United States.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on Thursday to roll back the net neutrality rules in the United States. While the European Union has such rules in place, telecom providers have pushed the boundaries at times in Sweden, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere, offering a glimpse at the future American companies and consumers may face if protections are watered down.

The F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, is seeking a sweeping repeal of the Barack Obama-era rules, paving the way for internet service companies to charge users more to see certain content or to restrict access to some websites. High-speed internet service providers, or I.S.P.s, could charge companies a fee to deliver their content more quickly.

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Europe has sought to combat such practices by adopting net neutrality rules aimed at ensuring that I.S.P.s in the bloc’s 28 member states can’t pick the web’s winners and losers. The regulations are binding and enforced by each country’s national telecom regulators.

For the European Union’s sprawling market of over 500 million citizens, the rules have mostly helped prevent bad behavior.

“There is not a long trail of abuse by telecom operators in net neutrality,” said Philippe Defraigne, a director at Cullen International, a Brussels-based consultant that covers telecoms and the digital economy.

That’s largely because unlike in the United States, Europeans have plenty of choices for internet access at home and on their mobile phones. France has four major mobile and internet operators and nine low-cost offshoots. Britain has more than 50. And there aren’t dominant giants born of megamergers, like the ones between Comcast and NBC Universal, and Verizon and AOL.

Even so, telecom operators in Europe have tried to take advantage of some of the gray areas in the rules.

When Netflix entered the European market in 2012, some national telecom companies forced it to pay “tolls” to deliver content to customers. Netflix did not name the companies but told a regional regulator in a letter that the dispute showed “the importance of strong net neutrality rules.”

The bloc’s rules also left open a major regulatory loophole for a practice called zero rating, in which a mobile network does not charge for data used on certain applications or services, giving them a leg up against competitors. The few regulatory disputes that have arisen in Europe have mostly involved big telecom companies that steer users to Facebook and other services.

Mr. Pai dismantled zero ratings protections in the United States even before he unveiled the plan to undo net neutrality rules entirely.

In Europe, the loophole created a confusing patchwork of interpretations in different countries over whether zero rating violates net neutrality. Sweden’s regulator concluded that the Telia offer didn’t treat internet traffic equally and should be halted. Want to stream music from a scrappy Spotify competitor? Telia would “throttle,” or artificially slow, that service once users reached their data caps, although they could keep listening to Spotify.

That doesn’t necessarily bother consumers.

“From a user perspective, I don’t think it’s a problem and I think most consumers don’t think it’s an issue,” said Magnus Haglunds, a Stockholm-based independent music producer who uses the Telia service. “There are those who may have to change from Apple Music to Spotify. But then they get free surfing on Spotify.”

Wasn’t net neutrality being compromised? “It’s not Cuba,” Mr. Haglunds replied. “Cuba has a problem. There they don’t have any internet at all.”

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